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Paradise Lost
By Clifford Odets

Through December 18, 2004

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Potomac Stages
Reviewed November 19

Not to be confused with Milton's epic poem, Clifford Odets' middle-class at mid depression play of the same title is both intriguing drama of social consciousness and interesting social history -- just the thing for this company which specializes in resurrecting important, neglected gems from the enormous output of the American theater of the twentieth century. This was the last play Odets wrote before heading off to Hollywood to pen screenplays. He left behind a solid body of work, some much better known than this (Waiting for Lefty, his best known pre-Hollywood piece, opened the same year as Paradise Lost). Here he captures a slice in time by stretching out time. By showing the progressive corrosion of the spirit under years of economic decline, he captures and transmits to future generations the essence of the grinding decline that marked Americas 1930s in very human terms. This production is a solid rendering of the piece with great attention to detail, a fine sense of ensemble work and a few standout performances.

Storyline: The extended family of a middle-class American businessman succumbs in stages to the crushing pressures of the Great Depression beginning in 1932 when, while America is voting for Roosevelt and against Hoover, the breadwinner's resources are stretched to the limit and continuing in a grinding spiral through to the 1935 day when the family is to be evicted from their home with no place to go, nothing to do and no way even to buy food. Through it all, however, the head of the household hangs on to a set of moral values. 

There is much to explore in America's experience of the twentieth century, the century which gave us such wonders as  penicillin, a polio vaccine, as well as the horrors of the atomic bomb and the holocaust, but the great depression is one of the collective experiences of the entire American population that, with its scope and duration, is difficult to really understand from afar. This slice of that life helps. Because Odets lets us see the large extended family in three subsequent years as the Depression deepened we can appreciate the fact that from year to year, not only did things not get better -- they kept getting worse.

The key to this view of that reality is the role of the father, the head of the household who is as proud of his responsibility as he is in his ability to fulfill it. Norman Aronovic starts the evening seeming to overplay that "wise old man" part, but soon that very over-earnestness is what makes his fall from the pinnacle so riveting. Odets contrasts it with an equally forceful recitation of the opposite view in a speech by a street person brought in at the end. Howard Stregack delivers that speech with an intensity that ignites the conclusion of the play, setting up Aronovic's final impassioned plea for moral values and human dignity. Together, the two speeches capture the conflict of a world apparently disintegrating.

There is some doubling up so that this production can use a cast of 18 as opposed to 24 in the Broadway debut. Still, this is a very large cast for the confines of the small Theatre II at Gunston Arts Center. Director DeAnna Duncan puts an emphasis on distinguishing the many roles from each other as Odets' script isn't always crystal clear about who is whom and what their relationship to each other may be. With a good deal of help from costume designer Rip Laassen and an emphasis on placing people together in groups around Thomas B. Kennedy's wide set, she overcomes some of the confusion that might distract the audience from the message.

Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by DeAnna Duncan. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Rip Laassen (costumes) Beth Baldwin (props) Franklin Coleman (lights) Bill Wisniewski (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Melissa Richardson (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Norman Aronovic, John C. Bailey, Sara Barker, Bernie Cohen, Brian Crane, Joe Cronin, Rebecca A. Herron, H. Alan Hoffman, Martha Karl, Christine D. Lee, Jason Lott, Brian Razzino, David Ruffin, Manolo Santalla, J. Calvin Smith, Howard Stregack.

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Talkin Broadway

Reviewed by Susan Berlin

The current offering of American Century Theatre, Clifford Odets' 1935 play Paradise Lost, is a surprisingly apt choice for the current time. Political divisions, economic stagnation and a general sense of dislocation all ring as true for the families in Odets' Depression-era drama as they do in today's unsettled climate. Director DeAnna Duncan picks up on the parallels lightly, without overburdening them.

Odets' play rambles in many directions, and he doesn't tie up all the loose ends - some characters appear in one important scene and then just seem to vanish, and situations follow each other in a seemingly random fashion. In other words, it looks a lot like life, although the characters speak in that elevated version of 1930s vernacular that no real person ever spoke.

What Odets is creating here is a microcosm of middle-class lives in a time when catastrophic illness, destitution and death are lurking in the corners. For some reason, the setting is described simply as "an American town," but his characters are clearly Odets' preferred middle and working-class New Yorkers. The play was not a success in its initial New York production, probably because it struck too close to home for many theatergoers.

The core of Paradise Lost is the Gordon family. Leo (Norman Aronovic) the father is an intellectual who designs handbags for a company he owns with his partner and business manager, Sam Katz (Bernie Cohen). Unlike the more pragmatic, even ruthless Sam, Leo sees himself as above politics, refusing to vote because "one side is as bad as the other." (Sound familiar?)

Leo's wife, Clara (Martha Karl), is doing her best to keep the house and family from falling apart. They have three grown children: Ben (Jason Lott), who won Olympic medals for his running skills but has no idea of how to deal with working for a living; Julie (David Ruffin), a bank clerk in failing health; and Pearl (Tiffany Givens), who devotes herself to the piano.

A lot of things happen in the course of the play, as feckless Ben marries Libby Michaels (Sara Barker), daughter of everybody's best pal Gus (Joe Cronin), and runs into trouble with his old pal Kewpie (H. Alan Hoffman), the neighborhood tough guy; Mr. Pike (John C. Bailey), a rabble-rouser from an old American family, periodically wanders into the house and spouts off; and Sam airs the grievances of his marriage to frustrated Bertha (Rebecca A. Herron). Eventually, the Depression catches up with the Gordons and their fragile, self-described "middle-class paradise."

Aronovic comes across as the beating heart of the play: his large eyes obviously mirror the pain and anger Leo is forced to endure. Karl conveys steadfast, silent strength that can burst into fierce protectiveness of her family. Cronin gives a fine, rueful performance as a man who can step back from the daily struggle to see his life more clearly. And Lott is dead-on, both in delineating the cockiness of a man who has never had to struggle for anything and his sleek hair and features - as if he stepped out of a 1930s magazine ad.

Cast List:

Leo Gordon: Norman Aronovic
Clara Gordon: Martha Karl
Ben Gordon: Jason Lott
Julie Gordon: David Ruffin
Pearl Gordon: Tiffany Givens
Gus Michaels: Joe Cronin
Libby Michaels: Sara Barker
Sam Katz: Bernie Cohen
Bertha Katz: Rebecca A. Herron
Kewpie: H. Alan Hoffman
Mr. Pike: John C. Bailey
May, Schnabel: J. Calvin Smith
Rogo, Cameraman: Manolo Santalla
Lucy: Christine D. Lee
Felix, Williams: Brian Crane
Phil Foley: William Aitken
Milton: Brian Razzino
Paul, Post: Howard Stregack

Read this review on the Talkin Broadway website.

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Washington Jewish Week

20th-century playwright's works relevant today Odets' 'Paradise Lost' onstage at the American Century Theater

by Lisa Traiger

A poet of the people, Clifford Odets didn't favor rhymed couplets. His poetry was dramatized free verse, usurping the surging vernacular of the down and out, the working class.

A pre-eminent playwright who came of age theatrically and politically in the 1930s, his poetry was fast-talking street slang, the troubled song of the working class, those barely a generation removed from their immigrant forebear's struggles. Odets' Paradise Lost sings the song of the dispossessed, dramatizing the downward spiral of one extended Jewish family in the Depression.

The American Century Theater, an Arlington-based company committed to breathing new life into 20th-century classics, has taken on Odets' little-seen 1935 work, resuscitating its middle-class aspirations and anti-war message for a new generation. Running through Dec. 18 at Theater II of the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, Paradise Lost is a tough sell, but standout performances and the smoldering language heard once more make it an intriguing revival.

The Gordons are a well-heeled, well-educated Jewish family. Leo, the head of the household, has an artistic bent -- he wears scarves instead of Windsor-knotted ties -- and he's the creative side of the business partnerships in a small handbag business he shares with Sam Katz.

Leo's wife, Clara, is a sensible woman, who offers advice, love and fruit like the best of Jewish mothers. Their three grown children, though, haven't left the nest. There's Ben, a onetime Olympic medalist runner, who can't find a profession or the will to work.

Upstairs at the piano day-in and day-out, sister Pearl practices her life away, not wealthy enough or brave enough to get herself an agent and try for a concert career.

The brains of the family, Julie, has been ravaged by a mysterious sickness -- clinical depression, perhaps -- and spends the first act shuffling around in robe and pajamas, recovering from the unexplained malady.

Each of these characters is sharply etched, but in an Odets play those five are just the beginning. Paradise Lost features an astoundingly large and often gifted cast. With 18 performers spanning three acts, director DeAnna Duncan has set herself an ambitious challenge in merely staging this expansive work. That she frequently finds sparks and sometimes fire in Odets' streetwise poetry is laudatory.

Into the Gordons' living room -- designed in a 1930s realist style by Thomas B. Kennedy -- a parade of characters changes the Gordons' lives. There's Kewpie, childhood buddy of Ben, fast-talking and shady to the core. Phil Foley, with a subtle Irish brogue, runs the corrupt local Democratic Party machine with a strong and unforgiving arm.

Gus, an old friend and in-law, lives with the family, while Mr. Pike, a furnace repairman, appears without invitation, an adopted uncle of sorts. A working class fellow with baggy pants and a southern drawl, Pike serves as Odets' spokesman and revolutionary voice, planting seeds for an uprising of mind and spirit, if not immediate political overthrow.

Set from 1932 through 1935, Paradise Lost lays bare the steady demise of the Gordons' comfortably middle class lifestyle. By the play's end, Odets remains accusatory of the status quo in his indictment of the political, social and economic ills of his era. His proof? That such a tight-knit and robust family exists mere inches away from poverty and homelessness.

Son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Odets was born in Philadelphia in 1906. Later, his family settled in the Bronx. Initially an actor, the young man found greater success and a voice when he tried his hand at writing.

When Paradise Lost premiered in 1935, the playwright nearly had a trifecta. An original member of New York's Group Theater, his Waiting for Lefty, a revolutionizing account of a taxi strike, made it to Broadway and acclaim. Soon his Awake and Sing, a Chekhovian kitchen-table drama about a quintessential Jewish family's struggle, also gained popularity and approval for its social currency.

Oddly, Paradise Lost failed to rally the critics and this wider-ranging work -- with elements of revolution and family drama evident from his two earlier efforts -- never made it big.

Paradise Lost is, without a doubt, a difficult play. Its far-reaching themes of class struggle and family and individual turmoil in the midst of a world on the brink of collapse; its quest for dignity in the face of human unrest; and its dark ending, which whelps with the wrenching sobs of despair in the face of ongoing struggle, have left audiences quietly contemplative rather than riled up for revolution as they were after Waiting for Lefty.

What Odets does best, aside from speak out for the working poor and galvanizing the willing to action, is draw distinctly vivid characters. The cast, headed by Norman Aronovic as Leo Gordon, bravely finds the assertive immigrant and working-class voices of the street. Martha Karl's Clara Gordon, the clan's loving matriarch, demonstrates fierce determination when her home is threatened.

Paradise Lost hints at Milton's epic poem of the banishment of Adam and Eve from their Edenic paradise. Leo and Clara are Odets' Depression-era Adam and Eve. Their banishment ultimately represents an awakening to the class struggle by middle-class strivers as they are introduced to their working class siblings in revolt.

But the play, too, touts an equally powerful anti-war message. In the memorable words of Mr. Pike: "Who are we if we remain silent while they make war? We're accomplices."

From a Jewish perspective, Odets' plays remain interesting because they feel centrally and specifically Jewish without a single obvious reference. Instead of couching the action in a Jewish event, Odets has a feel for the family patter in the dialogue that remains distinctively Jewish in flavor. With an insistent idealism to repair or revolutionize the world, Odets' left-wing proselytizing fits comfortably within 20th-century Judaism's cultural legacy.

Kudos to American Century Theater for returning this work to the stage for a new century, positing its relevance once more for audiences faced with ongoing political, social and economic struggles. The political players may have changed, but surely Odets wouldn't be surprised that the struggle remains.

Paradise Lost is onstage at American Century Theater, through Dec. 18 at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. Tickets, $18-$26, are available by calling 703-553-8782.

Read this review in Washington Jewish Week.

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